The Two Popes review – uncynical Papal politics

The Two Popes is the story of the election of two popes, Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013, and their private meetings between those dates. Whilst The Two Popes is undeniably about the politics of the papacy and the differing views of the men, one conservative and one liberal, the film takes things lightly. It simplifies down the politicking of the church to tell a sweet story of two old men compromising and then reconciling the modern day with their archaic traditions.

The Two Popes is not a straight-faced drama but instead a lot more comedic than one might expect. It presents the popes as human and relatable. They dance, watch trash TV, and support a football team. It creates a funny incongruity that is utterly charming. For a film about an organisation failing its 1.2 billion members, the comedy probably dilutes the solemnity of this crisis, yet it is the trivial joys of the comedy that gives The Two Popes the easy-going nature needed to make its two hours pass by easily. Only perhaps an end credits scene, which belongs more in a buddy comedy movie than a drama on the inner workings of the church, crosses the line into insincerity. However even then it is still delightful by itself.

Courtesy of TIFF

The two titular performances in The Two Popes are thoroughly deserving of their awards buzz. Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI brings a humble complexity to a man often seen as elitist and detached. However, it is Jonathan Pryce as the future Pope Francis that utterly amazes. For the role he speaks four languages, including some he learnt just for the film, and a lot of the film works because he brings charm and believability to his character. It’s a stunning, committed performance.

Director Fernando Meirelles made a name for himself almost twenty years ago with the masterful City of God. There are still flavours of that film here but it has been diluted with years of Hollywood filmmaking and the admittedly very different story in The Two Popes. What remains though is the near-constant use of handheld shots, which leads to a lot of odd angles and a lot of intense close-ups of Pope Francis in particular. It’s a curious effect, giving realism to a film that is undeniably silly and speculative when taken line-by-line. The way the film merges real-life footage with fake recreations also adds to this effect, as The Two Popes tries so hard to convince us of the truth of the private conversations depicted. Topped with a soundtrack full of pop beats, The Two Popes is a very dynamic and modern approach to a film of faith. In both story and execution, this is a film about humanising the outdated.

Courtesy of IMDb

For better or worse, The Two Popes is a film without cynicism. It tries to exemplify both popes as great men, glossing over their failings. Whilst the film doesn’t hide that both men had to deal with faith whilst under fascist rule, and both sided with the fascists, The Two Popes presents their regret as noble. It is a film about change within the church, but also about how men change. Perhaps their regret is therefore commendable, but the film doesn’t seem to take a side on whether that makes up for their actions, rather leaving the morality an open question.

The Two Popes offers a bit more than its straightforward premise seems. Whilst it is mostly just two men talking, it finds humour in these very humble moments. Perhaps such humour is inevitable when people become seen as human and not a representative of God. However, The Two Popes is too simplistic to really dissect such a complicated piece of religious politics and such worrying ethical dilemmas. Yet as a film of the old and powerful reminding us of their frailty, it’s a surprisingly pleasant watch.

The Two Popes releases theatrically November 29th and on Netflix December 20th

Darren Carver-Balsiger

Nerdy mix of a technical day job and a film-loving hobby. Can be found at film festivals, watching any film that can be found (old and new, from home or abroad), and writing. Prominent user on Letterboxd: https://letterboxd.com/DarrenCB/